Tag Archives: Al-Anon

Global Fears and the Alcoholic / Al-Anon

I’m a alcoholic who lives in Seattle, surrounded by the beautiful forested mountains that heal me on long hikes — which are currently going up in flames as never before.

Wildfires Increasing 17

What’s the big deal?  The graph to the right shows the nationwide trend of bigger, more numerous forest fires (in spite of more volunteers and better firefighting equipment).  This year, 2017, scores of wildfires consuming record acreage under “extreme” conditions of prolonged drought and heat have caused all northwestern states to declare emergencies, as has British Columbia.

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These super-fires incinerating our waning wildlife habitats are not part of the natural cycle: rather, they’re symptoms of climate change.  For many people, the loss may seem nothing major.  But for me, it’s personal. These forests are my church.  Wild creatures are my saints.

So when it “snowed” ash in Seattle this past Tuesday, our sickly yellow skies blanketing everything from Seattle to Portland with flakes of what had recently been verdant, living trees, I felt as though the bodies of dead loved ones were raining down as an omen: if we continue on as we’re going, our planet will die.

Witnessing this phenomenon, unprecedented in my 57 years of living here, has ravaged my serenity.  Also on my mind are the two record-breaking hurricanes striking from the south, which the US president, who does not “believe in” climate change, has eloquently described as follows: “It looks like it could be something that will be not good. Believe me, not good.”  More imminently, this incompetent megalomaniac controls the US nuclear arsenal while a godfather-like thug controls Russia’s — and a madman in North Korea has just announced that he, too, has a nuclear bomb.

What do you do?!  How do you live?!  I’ll tell you what not to do: what I’ve been doing.  I’ve been actively willing the world to change.  Haven’t you felt all the mental and emotional effort I’ve been pouring out, day after day, compelling everyone to see what I see and think what I think~?  Hasn’t Trump’s brain been affected by my constant mental criticism?

Nope.  Not a bit.  The only person impacted by my anguish… is me.  I’ve been carrying the world’s woes in my tightened throat, upset stomach, and continuous low-grade headache.  Today I, like so many Al-Anons, am sickening myself with fear and worry much as I once nearly killed myself with drugs and alcohol — believing again and again that I’ll somehow move closer to what I want using something I know does not work.

I fall again and again for the notion that I can control the world around me.  I forget I’m powerless over people, places, and things. But my inner addict never forgets the care-banishing, fukitol power of a drink or a drug.  “There’s an easy way,” it lobbies from the back of my mind, “to quit giving a shit about anything or anyone.”

What else can I do?  You guys have taught me, I always have access to three super-powers: a) meditation & prayer, b) program, and c) action.  I know, I know — they don’t sound real impressive, but they’re transformative, redirecting my path from a destructive to a constructive direction.

a) Meditation and prayer are, strangely enough, the antithesis of worry.  Sitting with eyes closed, I simply quiet my mind as I get to know the inner space of my consciousness.  It’s a lot like entering a dark room and waiting until your eyes adjust.  I can note how urgently or lackadaisically my thoughts enter; I can note my reactions to them, de-escalating from “Holy shit!  I just remembered this ultra-important thing!!” to “Yup… that’s us thinking again…”

At this point, I can begin to sense the inherent foolishness of my normal state of consciousness. I don’t blame myself for being foolish — I am, after all, just a person with squishy stuff in their skull.  I can see that I’m comically focused on my own world of thoughts, my own little “plans and designs.”  Why?  Because I’m scared shitless! I note the many ways I imagine I’m protecting what I love — my worries. For a few moments, I drop them all. I open to god instead and say, “This world is yours, not mine.  But I’m scared shitless.  Help me.”

NOW comes the point at which I can pray unselfishly, asking god to guide me to be useful beyond myself, and even to guide humanity to live on this planet less destructively.  Prayer, like mass meditation, does have an effect.

b) Program means that I go to extra meetings, talk with my sponsor or sponsees, and seek out ways to be useful to others. (Going to my homegroup tonight, I get to do all three!)  I can also write this blog to help you or maybe remind you to help others.

For instance, I was recently perusing this excellent book on not drinking which I’d forgotten I owned.  It’s kick-ass for folks in early sobriety.  I’m just gonna pass along the TOC here so you can recommend to newcomers either exploring one of these tactics (click to expand) or buying the whole damn book.

 

c) Action requires that when I say the Serenity Prayer, I be ready to actually change the things I can. I realized yesterday that, while my work used to require driving all over town to meet clients, now so many of them work at Amazon that on certain days I just drive downtown and back.  Guess what.  I live on a bus line. Rather than heroically taking out a huge loan to buy an electric car, I can simply get my lazy, germaphobic ass on the bus on those days to reduce my goddam carbon footprint.  (I promise to include a photo of me on the fucking bus in my next post.)

9/7/17: Record-breaking hurricanes to the south; record-breaking heat and drought to the west.  This isn’t the Olympics, guys.  This is our planet.

I must do what I can… or I’m a hypocrite.

And yes, I’ve already called my congresswomen to express my views, but I can also plant trees, attend protests, and campaign next time around for wiser a president.

When I took Step 3 all those years ago, I made a decision to live a good life, to seek good/god in all things, and to act on its guidance.  Today that means I don’t get to wallow in worry and panic any more than I do in self-pity and resentment.

There’s always a better way.  Seek and we’ll find it.

 

 

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Acceptance

And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation – some fact of my life – unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment… Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes.

                                                                                                                  -Paul O.                                                                                             “Doctor, Alcoholic, Addict”

Acceptance was the topic at my homegroup last night, and I’ve been thinking about it since.  The only sane response to life, acceptance is also the arch-nemesis of ego, which much prefers its minions – denial, control, and resentment.  Ego says, “What is shouldn’t be!”  Acceptance says, “What is, is.  Now what?”

Acceptance Oops!is closely tied to humility and surrender. Our faith in a higher power lets us surrender to the workings of a universe beyond our comprehension, or to the irrevocable fact that we just stepped in dog shit.  Life brings a lot of what we don’t want, and we’re often powerless over it: the dinosaurs didn’t screw up in any way; neither do victims of disaster and disease.  Other times, we do play a part. Maybe we were too busy daydreaming to watch where we stepped.  Either way, acceptance means being honest with ourselves about what transpires or exists, whether we like it or not.

Last night a young newcomer shared that the hardest things for her to accept had been that A) she was alcoholic and B) that abstinence was, according to the medical community, the sole way to arrest her disease.  Her voice, still ringing with that forlorn loss of her best friend and coping tool, reminded me of the savage fight I’d put up years ago against those same facts.  Real alcoholics did X and Y, and I didn’t – so I wasn’t.

But awareness of the truth grows ever so slowly in our bones, no matter what skeletonrationalizations our brains light up as the neon truth of the day.  Layer by layer, truth gathers substance beneath our superficial mind babble until it grows too prominent for us to stuff into the strongbox of denial any longer.  For years I’d been a maybe alcoholic or even a sure but who gives a fuck? alcoholic. Yet there came a day, a minute, a second – yes – when I acknowledged reality: addiction ran my life, and I didn’t know how to live otherwise.

So it goes, to an extent, with every acceptance.  The process can take years or seconds.  In 1998, driving down a familiar street that passes under a highway, my partner and I encountered a handful of pedestrians mulling in the middle of the road with no inclination to step out of our way.  When I looked where they were looking, I saw a Metro bus in an odd place – the rockery of an apartment building – with its middle accordion bent at a sharp angle.  Dust hung thick.  Piles of what looked like dirty laundry littered the grass nearby.  I took in all the pieces, but they made no sense to me until, like a bowling ball rolling down the alley of my mind, the thought struck: look up.

When I craned my neck to peer up at the highway fifty feet above, I saw… open air where the guardrail should be and something hanging by its wires – an inverted lamppost.  Those little piles of laundry were bleeding, suffering human beings flung where they lay.  I still remember the fight my mind put up: This can’t have happened, can’t be true!  It was not unlike the silent fight I waged when my boss told me the best job I’d ever had had just been cut; or after I picked up my cell phone and was told I had cancer; or when I looked at my boyfriend’s texts and learned he’d been seeing a girl from work for years.  The mind whirls, searching for outs.  But denial, in big cases like those, is like a frantic little terrier scratching at a closed steel door.  The weight of the facts precludes wrangling.  Shit. has. happened.

Thank god I have a place where I can speak of my loss, my fears, my broken heart and be heard and hugged by friends or even strangers with full hearts – people who carry the message of god: everything’s gonna be okay.

In daily life, what’s denied may be less dramatic, yet we go through the same process of looking for outs and telling preferred stories about what’s going on.  This bill is so stupid I don’t need to pay it.  It’s not gossip if I only tell one person.  I waste a little time on Facebook.  My shit’s so together now, so I don’t need meetings.  It’s not my fault.  I never promised.  Just one won’t hurt.  The list goes on.  Because if there’s no undeniable steel door, that little denial terrier is likely to scamper down a happier avenue, a story we make up to avoid whatever truth we’d rather not accept.  All the red flags of non-reality we take for roses along our hallucinated garden path.

garden path

As Don Miguel Ruiz puts it:

We only see what we want to see… We have the habit of dreaming with no basis in reality… Because we don’t understand something, we make an assumption about the meaning, and when the truth comes out, the bubble of our dream pops and we find out it was not what we thought at all.

Life strikes me as a series of popping bubbles. After I’d accepted my alcoholism, I had to accept the need to let god change me via the steps.  Next, I had to accept my character defects – all my selfish fears and judgments.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, I somehow ended up in Al-Anon where I became aware of my codependent people-pleasing.  I also learned the Three A’s of Al-Anon: Awareness, Acceptance, & Action.  With annoying pithiness, these three words sum up the entire process of emotional and spiritual growth.  I have to recognize a problem before I can accept it; only then can I ask, “so, what now?” and begin to change.

Acceptance most certainly does not mean giving up.  I accept getting old.  But having accepted my arthritic left foot, messed up meniscus, radiation-scorched lung, and the general creakiness of life in my 50s does ballet shoesnot stop me from killin’ it in advanced ballet class.  An extra half-hour warm-up, trimmed Dr. Scholl’s pads, pre-class ibuprofen, and all the weird stretches I’ve invented – these are the changes I’ve made, along with knowing those first fifteen minutes are gonna hurt.  But after that,  I’m 26 again – all music and technique – and grateful, so grateful!  I take the same approach with every obstacle life throws at me.  I accept the unpalatable truth: Dammit – this is how it is!  Then I ask what tools, what changes, what creativity can I use to make the best of this?  The answers always come if I’m honest, open-minded, and willing.

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Essential Prayers: Please and Thank You

Rejoice always,

pray without ceasing,

give thanks in all circumstances…

(1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

I ain’t a Christian, but them’s some wise words for how to tackle the challenge of living a happy and meaningful life.  For some, the “always,” “without ceasing,” and “all circumstances” parts might present a problem.  Actually, they’re problematic only if we segregate our spiritual life from the rest, as if the little things we did all day had nothing to do with our spirit.  The fact is, they have everything to do with it! Our spirits are just as present when we’re comparing cans of beans at the store as when we’re kneeling by our bedside doing what we label “prayer.”  We’re just too caught up in piddly-shit to be aware of our awareness – to focus on what we actually are.

In the rooms of AA, we often hear the advice to use two simple prayers – Please and Thank You – to forge a relationship with our higher power.  This is an excellent start!  For newcomers who have no idea what might be entailed in talking to their god, these instructions open the door.  It’s suggested that when we wake up, we ask god to “Please help me to stay sober today.”  When we go to bed, we pray, “Thank you for keeping me sober today.”

2014-12-25 14.58.27But there’s a whole lot more potential behind these two simple prayers.  They can change your life.  Just as step 1 is the only one to spell out the word “alcohol” while the remaining 11 deal with the matters that made life so painful we needed a damn drink, so the lens of the Please and Thank You prayers can be dilated from mere drink avoidance to apply to all of living.

Please.  By all means, when we wake up, we can ask god to keep us sober today, but we can also expand that request to “ask God to direct our thinking.”  What I ask is, “please guide me today,” by which I mean not only my thoughts and actions, but my level of awareness.  I might even say, “help me stay awake.”  What I mean is, god, help me to stay in contact with you all day long; help me remember this life is not about my little fears and agenda, but about being the best human being I can be today; help me know that whatever’s going on right now is just a single pace in the journey of my life, so when it gets tough I can hang onto hope.

As I proceed through my day, my biggest challenges all center on emotions.  Not what happens, but how I feel about what happens.  I’m a wa-ay codependent child of an alcoholic, which means that, left to my own devices, I tend to be a “reactor” aboriginemore than an “actor.”  Boy, do I hate that!  It sounds so wussy, but it’s true.  Most of the time, what you think (or at least what I think you’re thinking) carries more weight than what think or do.  I need you to be okay with me.  Better still, I’d prefer you be favorably impressed.  That way, you’d hand me a chit of personal worth I could add to my lowly little scrap heap.

But, damn it, I don’t want to live that way!  So I pray pretty much “without ceasing.”  I ask god, not to strike me well, but to show me, “If I were well, how might I see this?”  My experience has been that god nudges me toward compassion – for myself and others – which helps me reframe what’s going on and strengthen new neural pathways so that my thinking will change over time.  And slowly, gradually, it’s been working, which brings us to…

Thank You.  Again, it’s fine to start with the matter of whether I swallowed any booze today.  Even after 20 years’ sobriety, I still hop into bed some nights and think, “Geez!  I didn’t drink or even think about drinking all day!”  I still get this little image of my insides as all clean and healthy compared to that slimy feeling from back in the day.  And I thank god for it, for having let me be just one of Earth’s creatures, a gizmo fit to walk the planet exactly as I was made.

But I also “give thanks in all circumstances.”  What a trip it is to be alive!  What a freaking awesome world this is to cruise through, filled with miracles we can take for granted any time we switch to autopilot.  Bits of nature (outside my window, a finch just landed amid the gently stirring leaves of a cherry tree), goodness our culture has produced, signs of caring between strangers, and my chance to be part of it all – I thank god for this over and over.  Sure, there’s plenty of darkness; just read the news.  But there are also many who unite in trying to combat it, connecting in their commitment to… love.

CloudmoonGrowth.  How can the “Please and Thank You” prayers change your life?  For me, they’ve expanded my awareness a tiny bit, like the rings on in a tree, with each challenge I walk though sober.  eye

I am a tiny bit more aware.  It’s how we grow in sobriety.

At the core of my consciousness is my spirit.  It’s not my body: my body includes all my brain’s thoughts, all my body’s issues, and all the emotions they stir up between them.  I love those guys – don’t get me wrong – but they’re not my spirit.  My knowingness, my receptiveness, the live wire of my presence – this is the essence that sprang out of my body during my Near Death Experience, but it’s also the core of what I am as I brush my teeth or drive to Goodwill.  I am a little piece of god.  So are you.  And that reality becomes slightly more vivid to me with every clod I break as I plow through the lumpy terrain of being alive. I am the plowwoman, the driving force behind one individual human experience.  I need help to push on (please), but with every step taken, I see a little better what a tremendous privilege I’ve been given (thank you)!

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Boundaries = (honesty + humility) x self-esteem

The term “boundaries”  used to irritate me.  It’s always seemed such a pop-culture concept.  I guess it’s a psych term popularized during the assertiveness craze of the 80s – actually, I have no idea – but I first heard people throwing it around a lot in the 90s.  “That’s a boundary!” some woo-woo friend would exclaim, or, “You need to develop your boundaries” around this and that.  Like a lot of pop-psychology terms, it’s always kind of made me barf.

I’m just that way.  Whenever I don’t understand something, I’m quick to label it bullshit.  Contempt prior to investigation and all that.

The fact isBud ad, though, I suck at boundaries and always have.  I’m a people pleaser.  Why?  I grew up in an alcoholic home where we had trouble being honest about feelings because the most fundamental truth in the house had to remain that there was absolutely nothing wrong with Dad’s drinking. And because Dad was several different people depending on where he was in the cycle of irritable dryness, calm drinking, jubilant drinking, or self-disgusted hangover, while Mom and everyone else reacted to his state, I learned to look outside myself for the climate of reality.

But more subtle still was the thin film of doubt between the truth inside me and the truth inside my family members.  It isolated each of us.  It prevented love from sinking in through my skin.  I always felt valued for my various accomplishments rather than treasured for just being me.  All this is pretty classic for alcoholic homes.

I also grew up being quite bossy to my younger sister.  My older siblings had a sort of club that excluded us, so, as I relate in my addiction memoir, my younger sister was stuck with me.  I could run the show in all our doings, but whenever conflict came up, Mom would frame me as the oppressor.  Long story short: I grew up to suspect that my true self was mean, controlling, and unlovable.

When I got my first boyfriend, I remember so clearly the decision I made to play a role and stuff my true self!  If I expressed what I really thought or wanted, he’d be repelled and leave me.  It felt like some kind of vow of chastity or something, this inner resolve that I would win love by conforming myself to my best guess of whatever he wanted.

And I lived like that for decades.

split-rail-fence

Back to Boundaries.  What are they, anyway?  How do they work?

Working the 12 Steps of AA let me recognize the dance of Fear and Ego that orients so much of how I interact with others.  I learned that I fear I won’t get what I think I want/need, so my ego steps in to try to arrange and control the players as I think best, and then resents them when they don’t follow my script.  All true.

What I never saw until I went to Al-Anon was that one way – actually, my favorite way – of trying to control others was by doing exactly what I thought they wanted.  It’s all about management through martyrdom.  I’ve put not one but two partners through college, working at jobs I didn’t like to pay the rent and arranging my life around their syllabi.  This was love by transaction.  I sacrificed my needs for them so they’d be corralled and obligated to “favor” me with love – and if, along the way, I didn’t follow my own dreams, it was all their fault.  Both those relationships crashed and burned.

Unfortunately, all I really learned from those experiences was: “Don’t put people through college.”  In my current 9-year relationship, I’ve been blind to all the ways I’ve arranged my life around my current partner’s preferences.  We don’t live together, and he’s rarely in town, so I seem quite independent.  I have my own friends, my own programs, a busy life apart from him.  From the outside, I’ve got it goin’ on.  So it’s been harder to see the fact that I’ve dropped from consideration any requests I fear might displease him.  I’ve preferred to resent his “selfishness” for following (martyred) signals I put out rather than seeing my own choice to edit those signals.

Upshot: I can have no boundaries unless I’m honest with myself.  And I can’t be honest with myself if I lack humility.  Who wants to say, “I’m afraid I’m not loveable; I’m afraid you’ll decide to leave; I’m afraid I’ll be alone forever” -?  Humility is what lets us name and face this unglamorous truth: “I am flawed and frightened.” Once I can cliffname it,though,  I can have the self-honesty to see where I’m bending over backwards to be loved.  If god sees that with me, and we know it ain’t right, maybe I can muster the self-esteem to risk everything and trust god’s plan for me instead of my relationship management skills. Maybe I can take the plunge.  I can ask for what I want despite fear, in the faith that no matter what happens, I’ll be okay.

What Al-Anon has helped me see is that I’ve always misconstrued boundaries as a fence to keep other people from intruding on my inner sensitivities.  I’ve experienced angry siblings trampling all over my dignity and wanted protection – so that, I thought, would be a boundary.  But today I see that boundaries actually delimit my own choices and behaviors.  They’re about what I will and will not sign up for.  For years I chose to stand within the trajectory of my siblings’ insults.  Now the boundary is actually for me, the point at which I’ll remove myself.  Likewise, for years I’ve chosen to mute my own needs for the sake of my boyfriend’s.  Of course, any relationship involves compromise.  But the boundary signals those compromises that actually detract from my life and well-being.

Boundaries, I’m learning, are not directed at other people.  They’re about me recognizing the limit, the degree, the subtle gradation of that point at which my choices amount to self-harm – and refusing to cross it.  They represent a deal with god to honor my innate worth rather than trying to wrangle it from others.

I’m so grateful for a set of programs that has opened my eyes to the difference!

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Being Right vs. Just Being

If you happened to see last week’s blog, I was pretty hot under the collar.  I have plenty of beliefs about anger, but none of them seem to show up when it’s flaring in my system.  angry-face“Anger rises up in defense of something sacred,” I’ve been told, which was certainly true in this case – AA is precious to me, and I felt it had been attacked.  But that anger’s gone now.  Gabrielle Glaser makes some good points.  AA is not for everyone.  Some heavy drinkers do have a mere “bad habit,” and no clear line distinguishes their condition from the sort of fatal alcoholism that has ravaged so many lives – which I do believe only a spiritual experience can conquer.

In other words, for some, Glaser may be right.

“Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?”  That question, often voiced in AA and Al-Anon meetings, has always bothered me a bit, because I don’t experience the two as a direct trade: being happy may not come in exchange for releasing my grip on rightness.  Today I settle instead for the peace of being uninterested.  That’s why I prefer to frame the choice in these terms: “Do you want to be right, or do you want to just be?”

In the heat of anger, my world shrinks down to two dimensions: right and wrong.  Only one of us can claim the “right” end of the stick, and the loser is left with the “wrong” end, because they’re… well, a loser.  But life is way more complicated than that!  If I can keep my mind open, I can drop the stick and say, “I have this perspective, which differs from yours.”  That way, I open an avenue to peace.  I may argue and stay pissed a while, but either way my goal is to move on, to continue with the business of living my life while you live yours as you see fit.

honey mushroomThe largest single organism on earth is currently thought to be a colony of honey mushrooms living in the Blue Mountains of Oregon which occupies an underground area about the size 1,665 football fields.  It’s a system of genetically identical cells communicating for a common purpose – i.e. one living thing.  Now, if I were to pick a single one of these mushrooms and contemplate it as an individual entity – that would be analogous to assessing the behavior of a person in a particular situation.

Because behavior is only the tip of the shroom colony!  Sprouting that person’s choice is the vast underground network of family, culture, and life experience that has cultivated that person’s principles and beliefs, along with the vast simultaneity of feelings and motives churning beneath their surface in the present moment.  But I don’t consider all that.  I see only something that contradicts my own ideas.

What do I want to do when I feel someone else is wrong?  Judge and gossip.  But, no, wait!  I don’t judge – I morally evaluate.  I don’t gossip, I process verbally with people I trust.  The temptation, in any case, is to “prove” that my truth beats the hell out of that asshole’s skewed rationalizations.  In the process, I can get downright mean.  In my Glaser rebuttal, for instance, I resorted to sarcasm: “Gosh, Gabrielle, that’s right! …Oh, I see!” I could have made the same points without mockery.

An even crazier response is trying to change the person, also known as “trying to talk some sense into” them by driving home something that will make them see they’re wrong “for their own good.”  What I’m trying to do is uproot the entire underground spore system by yanking the “right” way on a single mushroom: it’s just not going to work!

I do wish my boyfriend would give up his traveling job and go to AA.  I also wish he’d quit saying “oriental” and badmouthing Obama.  Having told him these things, I get to decide if I want to accept him as he is – or leave.  In the same vein, I wish my siblings would live by the principles of Al-Anon, practice loving kindness, and respect my sobriety, but I can’t make them do so.  What I get to decide is whether I want to hang out with them.

My job is to build my own meaningful life.  That’s it.  You get to do the same.

In Herman Hesse’s novella, Siddhartha, the young Siddhartha siddharthaabandons everyone close to him in his search for truth.  He leaves his father, the monks who’ve taken him in, his best friend, and even the Buddha himself, eventually landing in a life of material and sexual indulgence that slowly sickens him.  A few decades later, after having “awakened” from this stupor, he’s built a new life of spiritual purity assisting a simple river ferryman when his illegitimate son comes to live with him.  The son is a major asshole: spirituality’s a bore, dad’s a loser, and he runs away as soon as he’s old enough.  But when Siddhartha anguishes that he can’t teach his son how to live, the ferryman sets him straight: “Have you forgotten that instructive story of Siddhartha…?  Could his father’s piety, his teacher’s exhortations, his own knowledge, his own seeking, protect him?  Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared this path?”

I take two points from this story.  The first is that I can’t impress my views on anyone who isn’t open to seeing them.  But the second is to live my own life fully, to blunder ahead at times as I blaze my own path of learning – along which, really, there are no mistakes!

There’s nothing wrong with being “wrong” sometimes.  Accept difference?  Are you kidding?  Of course I’ll still get pissed off!  Of course I’ll think I’m right and those assholes can stick it where the sun don’t shine!  Screwing up is part of being human – part of how we steer the course of who we do and don’t want to be.  That’s why Step 10 exists – because the process never ends.

I’m certainly no saint.  But loving tolerance remains my North Star, the direction in which I seek to move a little further every day.  That’s the point.

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The Codependent Alcoholic’s Quandary

Sometimes I feel pulled in opposite directions by my two programs – AA and Al-Anon – though the confusion actually arises, not from contradiction between them, but from my muddled thinking as a codependent alcoholic.

Bill and Lois

Lois and Bill Wilson, co-founders of Al-Anon and  AA, respectively

AA tells the alcoholic in me that “Our very lives, as ex-problem drinkers, depend on our constant thought of others and how we may help meet their needs” (20).   On the other hand, Al-Anon tells me that “…many of us develop the habit of putting [another] person’s needs first… To recover we have to learn to keep the focus on ourselves” (9).

How can I do both?  How do I constantly think of your needs and keep the focus on me?

When I was new to AA, I resented the idea that selfishness was the “root of [my] troubles” (62).  I was a victim.  Other people hurt me.  It took years of meetings and a fairly forceful sponsor to open my eyes to the ways I victimized myself.  Living in ego, I was “[d]riven by a hundred forms of fear” (62) that there wasn’t enough to go ’round and I wouldn’t get mine.  My sponsor taught me how my egocentric expectations that others do whatever would make me most comfortable laid the foundations for a life of discontent.  (See What a 4th Step is and Ain’t)

In AA, to stop being a black hole of need, we have to literally reverse the direction of our energy flow.  I had to learn to see others, not as appliances, but as fellow children of god to be loved.  Luckily for me, god set me up a bunch of tutorials in this matter.  Here’s one:  In early sobriety, I used to envy a beautiful young woman who secretaried a huge meeting, ever popular and lusted after, dressed to the hilt week after week.  She later relapsed, fled to her friends’ home, and while they were out, chugged a bottle of Drano from under their sink in an effort to die.  Last I spoke with her several years later, she was still missing much of her esophagus and needed a feeding tube to eat.  Her heart itself was scarred.

That’s the pain of alcoholism we share, sans a spiritual solution. Once I could begin to know and internalize that others struggled with the same invisible demons that I did, I could begin to give from the heart.  What the founders of AA knew was that sometimes you have to prime the pump by going through the actions before you feel the spiritheart-chakraThat’s why service work is such a foundational part of our program.  When I feel the outpouring of my own good intentions in making coffee or taking time for a sponsee, I begin to actually want good things for you – to love you.  As my love flows out to you, love from god flows into me, filling my emptiness – and I am healed!

That’s just a spiritual law.

Meanwhile, back at Al-Anon, the core of the program is “Live and Let Live.”  That’s actually two sets of instructions.  The first one, “Live,” means be true to yourself – know yourself, be yourself, love yourself.  Each of these is, for me, a 400-level grad school course that meets 365 days per year.  It’s tough!  When I was new to Al-Anon, I resented my sponsor’s conjecture that I probably didn’t know what I wanted.  How ridiculous!  I’m a very passionate person!  Of course I know I want… I want…

What do you think I should want?  I kinda like ABC – is that okay?  Do you like it?  Really?  So, you must like me!  Yay, I win!

In Al-Anon I realized that I had little to no center, that I’d been a reactor allwhoami my life. I set up relationships of turmoil to keep myself busy so I’d never have to take responsibility for my own happiness.  The greatest distraction from my assigned work of “Live” was harping on how you ought to live.  Really – look at yourself!  You’d be so much better off if you just did X, Y, and Z!  And I can’t do ABC because you hold me back!

Here comes the second half of the Al-Anon slogan: “Let live.”  Okay.  You are sole boss of you.  I haven’t lived your life up until this point, so I can’t know what’s best for you.  That’s between you and your higher power.  I can only tell you how your actions impact me and what I need, and then, based on your response, make choices for my own behavior (which may include parting ways).

But guys, you know what’s still hardest for me?  Weathering disapproval from people who believe they know better than I what I should and shouldn’t do.  You may have your own set of judges, but mine are my siblings; my recovery in AA put us terribly out of step.  Apparently I love, climb, parent, and write wrongly.  For many years I struggled to win their approval, mistaking that effort for “how [I could] help meet their needs.”  But the truth is, no one needs to approve of me!

This is where Al-Anon’s “focus on ourselves” comes in, to help me recognize internal factors – hello! fear of conflict! external locus of self-worth! – that are harming me and helping no one. I can easily detach in other parts of life, but to practice detachment with our first family requires, I’m beginning to think, a black belt in Al-Anon.  I’m still very much a work in progress.

The goal in both AA and Al-Anon is to grow toward my god rather than as dictated by my ego or someone else’s.  God moves me to love and help others, but never toward what I decide they “ought” to be, or in ways that harm my own serenity.  To achieve balance, I have to accept that my doing good for anyone depends on the foundational practice of self-care and self-love, so I can show up with my unique strengths and radiance – complete, confident, and compassionate.

Some day, that’ll be me with my sibs!

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